Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Could criminals walk free in New Orleans?
Wouldn't it be a strange and disturbing twist if the same storm that killed more than a thousand innocent people ended up freeing thousands of criminals? Dangerous criminals, like child molesters, rapists, even murderers.
It could happen in New Orleans, where Katrina has brought the justice system to a standstill. The city's public defenders office is broke, documents are destroyed, and the courts are running out of time to bring defendants to trial. State law says they have no more than three years to do so.
In tonight's show, you'll meet Dwight Doskey, a public defender whose office is now his pickup truck. The original public defenders office was condemned after Katrina.
Doskey is handling more than 700 cases alone. He says it would take him all year just to interview his clients, never mind doing extensive research on their cases. And that doesn't even account for court appearances.
As we found out, Louisiana is the only state in the country that relies on traffic fines to fund its public defender program. Because nobody was driving or parking after the storm, the office lost 70 percent of its funding and had to lay off 36 of its 42 lawyers.
Also tonight, you'll hear the story of a confessed killer who strangled a woman in New Orleans back in 2003. Come December, if his case hasn't been heard, he can walk free, even though he told police he needs to get off the street before he kills again.
We contacted the Louisiana attorney general's office for comment, but they haven't returned our calls.
'Hey Anderson, throw me some beads'
New Orleans has always been a complex city, a gritty gumbo town, not quite here, not quite there. Now, that is especially true.
Reporting here, you spend your days in the lower Ninth Ward, or in Saint Bernard Parish, where there are still miles of mud and acres of ruin, only to come back at night to Bourbon Street, where we stay, and see thousands of revelers, drinking and tossing beads, occasionally baring their breasts.
Bourbon Street is probably what most people think of when they think of Mardi Gras. Crowds of college-age kids, and those still wishing they were, take part in a raunchy, round-the-clock carnival of chaos, reveling amid piles of trash. It's mostly tourists, of course, though locals do occasionally drop by just to see what the visitors are up to.
Bourbon Street, however, is not what Mardi Gras is really about. At heart, Mardi Gras is a family affair.
Sunday night, I rode in a parade with Endymion, one of the major carnival organizations. I was a guest on Dan Aykroyd's float, and I was honored to ride with a half-dozen first responders -- police officers and firefighters -- the real heroes of the storm.
It was an experience I will never forget. Some of you have seen pictures of these parades, but they don't really capture the emotion of the moment. Tens of thousands of people line the parade route. Many haven't seen each other since Hurricane Katrina. They are young and old, black and white, a sea of smiles.
I found it impossible not to keep smiling myself, and after a few hours my face literally hurt from smiling. On the float, your job is to throw out beads, thousands of them, and everyone it seems is screaming for more. Dan Aykroyd, who truly loves New Orleans, told me his strategy, "I like to lob them in the air, so they have time catch them and don't get one in the eye." I used his method, because it's easy to hurt someone with all the projectiles flying through the air.
It's a very public event, of course, but there's something intensely personal about the throwing of the beads. You make eye contact with someone, toss them a necklace. They say thank you, and you roll on. The only beads people want are the ones they catch themselves. I find that very telling. The beads that fall on the ground are rarely picked up. They lack the personal connection, the bond has been broken.
I was on the float for at least four hours, but the truth is that after a while, the screaming seems to disappear, so do the crowds. All you see are the faces, one after the other.
I've come to Mardi Gras before, always for work, but for the first time I realize what it's all about. It's not Bourbon Street, and it's not the beads -- they are plastic and not worth much at all. It's about making a connection, one person to another, the present to the past. Like catching the beads, Mardi Gras is an act of luck, a reach of faith, a fleeting moment, in which everyone, young and old, rich and poor, housed or homeless, can reach out and hope for a better day.
Monday, February 27, 2006
Alarm, gratitude bind survivors' stories
As my cameraman and I drove along the Gulf Coast this week, it was as if we were connecting the dots of Hurricane Katrina, from one town, and one person, to the next. Our assignment was to revisit some of the people we met in the days and weeks after the hurricane to see how they are doing now.
There was the woman who lost her home in Waveland, Mississippi, but now celebrates the birth of her first grandchild; a psychiatrist who after Katrina walked the streets of New Orleans armed with a gun, but now drives those same streets counseling police, EMS, and other first responders; a retired merchant marine who videotaped the storm as it invaded his home, but now repairs it all himself; and a volunteer who tirelessly served hot meals to workers, and now is back at work as a juvenile probation officer. These are only a few of the many people we met.
Despite the different stories, two themes regularly emerged in our conversations. The first is one of alarm -- alarm that the killer storm evolved so rapidly into a depraved situation due to the poorly organized response, and concern that the next disaster might follow the same course. The second is one of gratitude -- gratitude toward the people who came from every corner of the country to help rescue, relieve, and rebuild the Gulf Coast.
The greatest lesson of all?
I've often asked myself, as I'm sure some of you have, do bad things happen for a reason? Well, in Pascagoula, Mississippi, there are three pint-sized little girls who were brought together by Hurricane Katrina. Their names are Anna, Kered and Christina, and they are third-graders at Resurrection School.
Before the storm, nearly all the students at Resurrection were white. Kered, who is black, attended St. Peter the Apostle, an all black school. But Katrina caused Kered's school to crumble, and along with it 100 years of racial separation.
St. Peter had nowhere else to turn for its students to learn, so it was decided all the students, black and white, would go to school together at Resurrection. Now, of the more than 300 students at Resurrection, 55 are black. The lesson plan is the same, but the faces sure have changed.
Little Anna told me, "I didn't think it was very fair. That's why Martin Luther King was here. I kept hoping other 'colored' kids were gonna come here." And Kered told me, about her old school, "I loved St. Peter with my whole heart. It's just that I want white friends. I couldn't take it."
It's amazing to hear such thoughts about race and prejudice from 9-year-olds. I think these girls can teach all of us, especially adults, some important lessons about acceptance and friendship. What do you think?
The 'pull' of Mardi Gras
On my flight to New Orleans, I sat next to a woman who lost her home because of Hurricane Katrina, relocated to Atlanta, but was feeling like she must return to New Orleans. The reason is the "pull" of Mardi Gras.
What we've found this week as we walk the streets of the Big Easy is that many evacuees find they can't let Mardi Grass happen without being back for it.
It's hard to understand for a lot of us from other places, but celebrating Mardi Gras is part of the soul of so many people who live here...and who lived here.
So they are coming back in throngs. We spent some time with Ashley Cantrelle, a student at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Katrina destroyed her house, her family is split up and her only home is a dorm room. But we watched her celebrate at a parade and as she caught beads on Bourbon Street.
It reinvigorated her spirit even as she boarded the bus back to her dorm in Baton Rouge, where she still has to worry about where she will live when the school year ends.
They lost their homes, but still want to party
Two months ago, I would turn out of my parking garage on the way to work and see the Rocky Mountains. I was CNN's Denver correspondent.
Now, the most memorable sight is endless debris fields. I moved to New Orleans to cover the still unfolding Katrina story.
Sunday night, I found myself sitting on top of a King Midas float, wearing purple satin and gold lame. I had the pleasure of taking part in the Endymion parade, one of New Orleans' annual Mardi Gras events.
A lot has been made about Mardi Gras this year. Should they? Shouldn't they? I can tell you that around 200 of the participants in Endymion lost their homes, lost everything. To a person, everyone we talked to felt the city should throw the annual carnival.
It is hard to show you how widespread the devastation is down here. Homes, entire communities completely wrecked. No real plan to rebuild. It is even harder to explain how difficult day to day life is for many people.
I don't know if the city should have had the party. But, I am glad it did. It is nice to see this city spring to life, if even for a few days.
Friday, February 24, 2006
I remember one time when I was a resident in neurosurgery at the University of Michigan, and I was called to provide a consultation on a gentleman in his mid 40's who was destitute and diagnosed with a mental disorder. When I examined him, it became clear that he had no memory whatsoever. He could not even remember me when I said "hello" and then returned five minutes later. He had no short-term memory and had absolutely no long-term memory either. In short, he had no past, present or future.
He was complaining of headaches though, so we ordered an MRI scan of his brain. What we found blew us away. He had a large benign brain tumor sitting in the front of his brain, squarely pressing on the structures responsible for memory. Sure enough, when we took it out, he rapidly started to recollect everything. He had once been an engineer, but had developed a personality problem that got him fired. In retrospect, that personality problem was probably the first sign of the brain tumor. He then turned to alcohol as a salve, which eventually led to him becoming homeless and destitute. Once the tumor was removed, it was as if the last eight years of his life had never happened. I have never forgotten that gentleman and his remarkable story.
Tonight, we tell the story of Doug Bruce. One day, he suddenly "woke up" on a subway. He got on the subway as Doug Bruce, but by the time the train had stopped, he was no longer that man. He had forgotten everything, including his name, where he came from, his family. He didn't even know why he was on the train. It turns out Doug may have had a cyst in his brain that ruptured, causing instant and complete memory loss. As a neurosurgeon, I can tell you that it can happen.
But it got me wondering: How many people out there who are homeless and dismissed as mentally ill might in fact have a very treatable brain problem? And how could we ever figure that out?
Our busted truck don't mean much
I was in Gulfport, Mississippi, the day before Katrina struck, preparing to cover the storm's arrival. Forecasts indicated the city of 71,000 would be hit by the powerful eastern side of the storm's eye wall. We knew the damage would be incredible.
Touring around Gulfport after the storm, we saw an entire empty beachfront where houses had once stood. Today, a half year later, the scene looks eerily similar.
The Gulfport coast, indeed, much of Mississippi's coast, is still full of wreckage. It looks like a bombing zone. FEMA trailers are set up all over the city. Many businesses in downtown Gulfport remain closed. Some still have blown out windows and shattered walls that appear frozen in time.
Our CNN vehicle was totaled the day of Katrina's arrival when a huge chunk of fence landed on top of us while we were sitting in it. We weren't hurt, but we were shaken up. It all seems so insignificant now after experiencing these last six months with the people of the Gulf Coast.
The misery of a camping trip that never ends
I guess anything is better than living on wet ground and using a garden hose to bathe, but life in this temporary tent city in Pass Christian, Mississippi, is far from ideal.
The Village, as it's called, was set up by the city and paid for by FEMA. At one point, it housed more than 300 people. Now it's down to about 83. I visited the Village to shoot a story this week and saw firsthand how these people are living.
Outdoor sinks to wash their faces. Shared shower rooms. Their kids go to daycare in a tent. They eat in the meal tent. Nobody has their own bathroom. It's like a camping trip that never ends.
Most of the people who live here have lost everything. FEMA says it's trying to get trailers for all of the Village residents, but it's been six months since the storm.
Tonight on the show, you'll meet a mother, 76, and her daughter, 50, who've been living in a tent since November, when the Village opened. They are living in limbo, waiting for a trailer that hasn't arrived.
The mother has chronic asthma and the daughter has liver disease and panic attacks -- conditions that have worsened since the storm. They say that for health reasons they need to live near other, even though they didn't before the storm. FEMA says that may be part of the hold up.
What can be done? What should be done? You tell me.
Thursday, February 23, 2006
Old horrors, young victims (Part I)
I've covered horror stories across the African continent, and every time, I tell myself I've seen it all. But nothing could have prepared me for the scenes I witnessed in the tiny dusty town of Gulu in northern Uganda.
It is in this region that a rebel force -- the Lord's Resistance Army, which claims to base its principles on the Ten Commandments -- has waged a protracted 20-year war against the Ugandan government. The army is led by Joseph Kony, a 43-year-old so-called "Disciple," who is as elusive as he is mysterious. His modus operandi is to kidnap children from villages at night and indoctrinate them into his group. Reports from victims suggest he physically and mentally abuses them into submission. The United Nations says more than 30,000 children have been kidnapped in the last 10 years alone.
In a bid to escape danger over the past three years, every young child in every village surrounding Gulu makes a nightly trek from their village homes to the relative comfort of the town. The locals call them the "night commuters."
They're given shelter at several locations in Gulu -- a canvas roof; a cold, hard floor; and if they're lucky, a blanket. No food, no water, no showers are available. But at least they get to become kids again, knowing Joseph Kony would not attack the well-fortified town. In the morning, they get up and proceed to make the long commute back home, just lucky to be alive.
Those who are kidnapped by Kony's army live a life of horror. While reporting this story, we met Alice, a 19-year-old girl who recently managed to escape after eight years in captivity. She told me blood chilling stories of events no child deserves to witness. She spoke of how the group she was in was made to kill a child who tried to escape by biting him to death, of how she was made to cut up and cook the body of a village chief killed by the rebels and forced to eat the meat from his body, and of how she was raped and eventually had a child from the man who defiled her. She showed us the physical scars of her time as a child soldier -- bullet holes on her leg and shrapnel wounds on her chest.
The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant of arrest for Joseph Kony. Nonetheless, he's able to operate with relative impunity throughout the northern part of Uganda. As long as he's alive and leading his ragtag group of rebels, no child in northern Uganda will ever be safe.
What's your take on the Katrina report?
Looking for some light reading? The White House released a 228-page report
today on what it learned from the response of the government and the private sector to Hurricane Katrina. The main news
seems to be an admission that inexperienced disaster response managers and a lack of planning, discipline and leadership contributed to vast federal failures. What do you think?
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
New Orleans honors the cops who stayed
Walk into any tourist trap in the French Quarter and you will see a shirt that reads -- "Hurricane Katrina came and all I got was a new Cadillac and plasma TV."
It's a jab at the New Orleans Police Department. In the days after the storm, some cops were accused of looting high-priced items like plasma TVs. Others, it is alleged, swiped some cars from a Cadillac dealer.
Sgt. Todd Morrell can look at the shirt now and summon a slight chuckle. But nothing about Katrina was a laughing matter for him and other members of the city's SWAT team in the days after Katrina.
Morrell went into the flooded Ninth Ward after the hurricane, and he was simply shocked. He and other officers had two small flatboats, along with a chainsaw he had borrowed from his father and forgot to return.
For days on end, he used that chainsaw to free residents trapped in attics. He and the other New Orleans officers who stayed on the job did this work out of the media spotlight. They worked around the clock before most reporters even made it to the mostly heavily flooded areas. Morrell is credited with rescuing hundreds of people.
Today, some long overdue recognition came his and his colleagues' way. All the New Orleans officers who stayed on the job received a pin honoring their dedication and hard work.
Hurricane countdown: Is FEMA ready?
Start the clock. The next hurricane season is less than 100 days away, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is promising to be new, improved and ready to respond by then.
I am sitting in my office right now reading over a list of reforms the agency is working on -- better communication, streamlined supply chains, faster debris removal, a doubling of its capacity to register victims after any disaster, less red tape.
It all sounds promising. And, at first blush, it looks like many of the significant problems that arose during Hurricane Katrina are addressed in these plans and that, if they are implemented properly, FEMA officials could make some progress toward rebuilding public confidence in their agency.
Still, I'm going to sit down with FEMA Acting Director David Paulison today to discuss these matters, and I'm wondering how confident he is that all of this will go as planned. Reforms are never easy. They are even harder when a great many skeptical voters are watching. So, I'm wondering -- with the next hurricane season around the corner, what would you ask the head of FEMA?
Liar, liar, brain on fire (Part II)
So I'm the correspondent on the "liar, liar" story and actually took the MRI lie detector test discussed in an earlier post.
The MRI can be pretty intimidating -- it's a huge machine and constantly makes banging noises. The sound made me think of a metal bat dropping on a cement floor, over and over again.
The doctors slid me into the machine and asked me a bunch of questions over the course of 40 minutes. As if on cue, my brain "lit up" every time I lied.
Then I took a good old-fashioned polygraph. I had to wear an inflated blood pressure cuff for the duration of the test -- about 10 minutes. I didn't really beat the test, but I could certainly mess with the results by changing my breathing and thinking about other stuff.
Both tests were very uncomfortable and I can see why neither has 100 percent accuracy. But the doctors at Temple are on to something. And they are fired up about the possibility of one day having a fool-proof lie-detector test.
Tell you the truth, the whole idea kind of freaks me out. I'm not too excited about someone being able to see inside my brain and read my thoughts. What do you think? Is a fool-proof lie detector a good or bad thing? Yes, you have to type it out, because we can't read your mind...yet.
Liar, liar, brain on fire (Part I)
Remember that scene in the movie "Meet the Parents" where Robert De Niro gives his soon-to-be son-in-law, Ben Stiller, a lie detector test? Stiller's character is nervous and flunks the test even though he didn't really do anything wrong. Well, that's long been a problem with polygraph tests. They are pretty good at catching liars, but they sometimes wrongly accuse honest people too.
Now science is trying to come up with a better test. For tonight's show, we talked to two doctors at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who recently put 11 volunteers into an MRI machine and asked six of them to lie and five to tell the truth to a series of questions. The results are remarkable.
When the volunteers lied, twice as many parts of their brains were active -- about 14 unique areas. But when the volunteers told the truth, only seven areas of the brain were active. Turns out it takes much more concentration to lie and doctors can see the difference using an MRI machine.
The doctors are excited about their research, but stress it is still in the early stages. Nonetheless, I can think of a lot of situations in which this test would be pretty useful -- cheating spouses, criminals, lying politicians. I'll bet you can too.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Soap opera watchers need not apply
What will life be like in the "new" New Orleans? City Councilman Oliver Thomas doesn't want to see any loafers.
Thomas stirred the pot this week by saying public housing residents who want to come back to the city should be required to get a job. Thomas says he doesn't want people to "sit around watching soap operas." He also says he hasn't gotten any negative reaction to his comments.
But maybe he needs to go to the Hot Spot Barbershop, as we did, just across from one of the city's public housing developments. That's where we found Karrie McElveen. She says too many locals don't have the skills they need to get a job.
We also met Toya Madison, who's been back in New Orleans three days after evacuating to Indiana. She says she's furious that a city councilman would try to "kick people when they're already down."
What do you think? Is Thomas kicking people when they are down? Or is he saying what needs to be said?
Klansman told me to get out of America
I met Jarred Hensley, a Ku Klux Klan member, six months ago while working on a story about racial tensions in Ohio. I remember being struck by his age: At 23, he was -- and remains -- the second most powerful Klansman in the state.
Hensley told me the Klan was growing younger and larger, information we later verified with the Southern Poverty Law Center. I asked Hensley if we could attend one of his Klan meetings. He told me non-members are not allowed. But he eventually agreed to videotape the meeting for us. His tape arrived a few months later.
After reviewing the tape (only portions of the meeting were filmed), I went to Ohio to interview Hensley. He told me there was an increase in Klan membership after 9/11. He also said the Internet is the Klan's number one recruiting tool.
Personally, this has been a hard story for me to report. As an Asian-American journalist, I found it difficult at times to listen to his views objectively. At one point in the interview, he told me I should leave the country.
Some people have asked me why we are giving the Ku Klux Klan a platform. I respond by saying there is clear evidence the white supremacist movement is on the rise in this country and around the world. This story cannot be ignored.
What Katrina stories are we missing?
We're heading to the Gulf Coast soon and want to hear what you're thinking about Katrina recovery and rebuilding efforts. Do you live in an area that's seen an influx of displaced Gulf Coast residents? Did they bring crime or goodwill with them? Have you witnessed situations where your tax dollars are being wasted? Is your government getting the job done? Send us your stories.
And please make sure you let us know how to reach you.
Monday, February 20, 2006
Inside the port deal that's giving Bush headaches
Dubai is an amazing place, a small desert port at the edge of the Persian Gulf that has exploded into a work-in-progress of construction cranes and half-built high rises. Every time I visit, it looks different. Bigger, busier, more extravagant. The word boomtown seems inadequate to describe the frenetic pace. It is Hong Kong on steroids at the moment.
But the United Arab Emirates, where Dubai is located, is also a place touched by 9/11. Terrorist money came through here, so did some of the hijackers, who flew through Dubai's famed airport.
This is how what seemed to be a dull business story about port contracts has become a political and emotional controversy. One shipping company buying another is big money, but not big news, unless the company doing the buying is another one of those go-go Dubai companies, the Dubai Ports World, and the other company controls container shipping at several U.S. ports, including New York.
That's where we are tonight. A company from a country tinged with 9/11 is seemingly suddenly in charge of running several American ports (did I mention the company they are buying-out is also foreign?). The White House says it is OK. International shippers say the company has a great record. But 9/11 families and members of Congress say different. Even the former head of DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, says he can understand why politicians are saying "wait a minute."
By the way, the British government also had a chance to block the deal, because the Dubai company would be in charge of a couple of UK ports. It didn't. This one ain't going away for a while.
So I am back in New York today, and much relieved. Just a few minutes ago, I sent my book to the publisher. It is a great feeling. The book was a couple weeks past deadline, and my editor was starting to get nervous. You know, calling me "just to chat" to "see how things are going." He was polite about it, but I could tell he was anxious. So was I.
I mentioned the book once before on this blog, and a bunch of you wrote in asking me more about it. The title is "Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival." But the truth is, it still feels strange to talk about it, so I'll blog about it some other time. It's something I've been writing in my head for many years.
This weekend, I stayed in Texas and met up with Oprah Winfrey. She's building a number of houses for Katrina evacuees and was taping her show in Houston. I put together some stories for her from New Orleans, and those will air tomorrow on "Oprah."
Then, tomorrow night, Oprah will be on "360°" giving us her take on the response to Katrina, and what she hopes to accomplish with the building project in Houston.
Friday, February 17, 2006
Bird flu may be closer than we think
With bird flu continuing its march around the world, we decided to interview Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government's leading infectious disease expert, for tonight's show. He thinks bird flu could be in the United States in less than a year.
"I would not be surprised if in a period of several months to a year we would
see this even in the United States." - Dr. Anthony Fauci
For a long time, we believed bird flu was a disease that was "over there." Americans paid little attention because it was as peculiar as monkey pox and Gambian rats. But slowly the virus has marched around the world in birds and in humans.
Now, Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says it would not be surprising if it came here relatively soon. Are we ready? The answer is almost certainly no.
We don't have enough medicine, vaccines or hospital beds if bird flu starts spreading in the United States. We learned valuable lessons this past year from disasters like Katrina. If there are obvious warnings, we need to pay attention. It is not cause for panic, just attentiveness and action.
Nigeria fights bird flu with blunt knives, bare hands
Bird Flu has hit Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and the continent's biggest poultry producer, with a vengeance. In one part of the country alone, more than 140,000 chickens have been culled, and that's just the beginning.
In farm after farm we visited for tonight's show, we witnessed disturbing scenes of chickens being slaughtered without proper supervision or equipment, with health officials using blunt knives, without gloves or protective suits, the animals' blood spraying the officials' clothes and bodies.
In some cases, the birds were dumped into pits and set alight. But in others, they were simply tossed into shallow pits and left there to rot in the hot African sun. This, scientists say, poses a problem. Uninformed locals, many of them poor, illiterate and living in remote areas, have been dipping into the pits and coming up with armloads of dead and possibly contaminated chickens. They told us they felt the whole culling exercise was a waste of what they called good meat and that they would take the birds home and cook them for their hungry families.
Health officials fear this could be the beginning of a potential pandemic, as this is one way the bird flu virus can mutate from animals to humans. And in open-air meat markets like one we visited in downtown Kano, chickens continue to be a big seller, with locals telling us they believe bird flu is a myth and that until they see evidence of humans being infected, they won't stop buying and eating chickens.
That may be too late. Although no one in Nigeria has died of bird flu, the virus has already killed more than 90 people around the world. Unfortunately, Nigeria seems to be providing the perfect uncontrolled environment for the H5N1 virus to thrive.
Did Katrina evacuees bring more crime to Houston?
You won't find any public officials in Houston who will say, "Crime is up because of the Katrina evacuees." That's not smart politics. But you will find plenty of Houston residents who feel that way.
To tell the story of how the massive influx of evacuees has affected crime in Houston, we decided to visit the Fondren neighborhood in the southwest part of the city, because this is where many evacuees wound up settling.
The mainly working-class neighborhood, which consists mostly of low-rise apartment complexes, was plagued by crime long before Katrina evacuees arrived. But officers who work this beat say they've seen a significant spike in emergency calls since they got here. One officer told me, "Oh, we're a lot busier."
Across Houston, there have been a series of high-profile crimes involving Katrina evacuees. Houston police say evacuees have been victims or suspects in about 20 percent of the city's homicides, more than double their percentage in the population. This is leading to a feeling among some Houstonians that perhaps the evacuees are wearing out their welcome.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Molestation allegations rock small Texas town
We spent time recently in the small east Texas town of Wills Point, where several people have come forward to make some very unpleasant allegations about one of the town's leaders.
We talked to two men who told us Mike Jones, a member of the city council for the past 12 years, molested them when they were young teenagers. One of those alleged victims confronted Jones at a city council meeting this week. It got so raucous that the accuser was arrested by police and threatened with a taser gun.
Jones has filed a slander lawsuit against the man who confronted him at the city council meeting, and tells us the allegations are all untrue. He says he's being picked on because he's a successful politician and businessman.
We also talked with firemen who accuse Jones of ogling them while they took showers in the firehouse. Jones also denies these allegations.
This is a tough story to cover because of the nature of the allegations and the strong denials of the accused. Who's telling the truth? Who isn't? The reputation of more than one person is at stake.
Regardless of the truth of the allegations, there is little chance this will wind up in a criminal court. The district attorney says the statute of limitations has expired.
Houston straining under weight of Katrina evacuees
I was off last night in Arizona shooting a story for an upcoming broadcast and am now on a plane heading for Houston, Texas. Tonight's broadcast will be from there.
We want to see how some of the people who evacuated from the Gulf Coast to Houston because of Hurricane Katrina are doing. This city took in more than 100,000 evacuees after the storm. It is coping now with growing pressure on its schools and hospitals while contending with an apparent increase in crime.
Despite these issues, I continue to be amazed by the resilience of so many people in the face of tragedy. Many have lost homes, jobs, everything they know, and yet they persevere.
"What option do we have?" one woman asked me this past weekend in New Orleans. She was about to be evicted from the hotel where she was staying. Of course, she's right -- getting up each morning, putting one foot in front of the other -- what else can you do when your world has crumbled?
Massive morgue outside New Orleans rests in peace
Just yesterday, nearly six months after Hurricane Katrina, yet another body was removed from a New Orleans home. Normally, doctors would use advanced forensic techniques to try to identify the body.
But Louisiana's medical examiner, Dr. Louis Cataldie, says he no longer has the necessary equipment. That's because FEMA has closed the enormous, $17 million morgue it built about an hour drive north of New Orleans. Cataldie was using the morgue's high-tech equipment to help him the identify the bodies of Katrina victims.
Just after Katrina hit, officials feared a death toll upwards of 10,000 or 20,000. But after only 60 bodies were examined at the facility, FEMA closed the morgue on Monday, saying its work was done and that keeping it open would cost $230,000 every week. The bunk beds, washers and dryers, and gym equipment for its staff are being mothballed. The state-of-the-art autopsy gear already has been shipped out.
Cataldie says he thought most of the 2,100 people still listed as missing would have been documented by now. But, as it turns out, Cataldie thinks there are another 60 to 100 bodies still buried in the rubble of New Orleans' Ninth Ward. With the closing of the morgue, Cataldie hopes to set up shop soon in a washed-out funeral home in New Orleans.
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
How would you spend $300 million?
What could you do with $300 million? That's how much money the federal government has spent on a ghost town of empty mobile homes sitting in Arkansas. My CNN colleague Susan Roesgen visited this ghost town a few days ago and wrote about it here
The mobile homes are supposed to be used for temporary housing for Katrina victims, and FEMA says they will be soon, but red tape and some apparently bad planning have stranded them in Arkansas.
I spent yesterday on the phone talking to New Orleans residents about what else could have been done with that money. Real estate agents say more than 2,500 permanent homes could have been built and sold to working class folks. Then the money could have been turned around to build even more.
The school board has spent $20 million from its operating budget to reopen 20 schools. Educators say with $300 million almost every school in town could be running again. On it goes: Hospitals, police services, public transportation. People from New Orleans say there are many, many ways $300 million could have been better spent.
I pulled out my calculator and figured out one of my own. With $300 million, you could make a carpet of dollar bills more than five feet wide all the way from New Orleans to Washington, D.C. Imagine that.
Forget for a moment about government handouts, about relief fraud, about who is to blame for the myriad mistakes that happened before, during and since the storm. This is $300 million of your tax dollars. Could you come up with a better plan for it?
Wasps enlisted in war on terror
I don't know about you, but I hate bugs. I can't stand the sight of them and their tiny little eyes, their creepy antennae. I can't even bring myself to kill them in my house. I have to call my husband.
But now, my feelings about bugs may have to change, because they may one day be our first line of defense in the war on terror. That's right, bugs fighting in the war on terror.
I'm working on a story for tonight's show about a Georgia research scientist who figured out a way to train wasps to identify the smell of vanilla and chocolate. The U.S. Department of Defense spotted an opportunity and asked him to train wasps to detect nerve gas and explosives like TNT too. And he's actually done it.
The scientist, Dr. Joe Lewis, trains the wasps by getting them to associate food with the odor they're supposed to detect, almost like giving a dog a treat after he does something well. Wasps have a keen sense of smell and can detect chemicals at very minute levels.
So one day, you may see airport police or the TSA working with a handful of wasps to detect killer substances. What a thought! The training process takes only a few minutes, which is a good thing, because these wasps typically live for just three weeks.
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
'You are taking your life in your hands'
I don't think I have ever seen as many people in lab coats squeezed into such a small area. At Tulane University Hospital in downtown New Orleans, this crowding was cause for celebration.
One of nine New Orleans-area hospitals forced to close in the flooding after Hurricane Katrina, Tulane reopened its emergency room and 63 hospital beds today. Any health care improvement in this city ahead of Mardi Gras is big news.
Emergency care spikes about 30 percent each year during the big party, according to doctors in the city. They tell me they typically see lots of cuts and bruises and some more serious injuries resulting from alcohol and fights during Mardi Gras.
Despite the festive atmosphere at Tulane, one finds a very different scene at the New Orleans Convention Center and its makeshift medical center. No celebrating here.
Dr. Peter DeBlieux directs the emergency room, which is made up of six or so military surplus tents. Don't laugh. Doctors treat about 5,000 patients each month in this space, many of them uninsured poor. It's been going on nearly five months.
DeBlieux says doctors are doing an amazing job with what they have, but he says they need more resources. "You are taking your life in your hands," he told me. At one point, my producer, Silvio Carrillo, who speaks Spanish, had to translate for a doctor who couldn't understand his Honduran patient.
Asked why more the city's health care system isn't in better shape, DeBlieux says local, state and federal leaders have yet to agree on a plan. His conclusion: "Pathetic."
Love is a many-splendored...mental illness?
I want to say first and foremost that I am a romantic. I really am. I am a scientist as well, however. So, I decided to do a little research into the science of love. It is worth investigating, after all, especially on Valentine's Day. It is an emotion for sure, but what exactly makes it so powerful?
It turns out Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, decided to put it to the test. She found 17 people who were madly in love and scanned their brains while they were looking at a picture of their sweetheart. She wanted to find out what happens in the brain when someone experiences intense feelings of love.
What she found is that there is no separate "love" part of the brain. Instead, the reward/pleasure part of the brain lights up strongly, just like it does when someone eats chocolate or when an addict gets a fix.
If that doesn't take all the poetry out of love, consider this: Serotonin levels were 40 percent lower in lovebirds, just as they are in those with obsessive-compulsive disorder. So, according to Brown and her two fellow researchers, Art Aron, a psychologist at Stony Brook University in New York and anthropologist Helen Fisher, love is a motivation bordering on mental illness.
And it gets worse. It is predictable that the dopamine-drenched craze that fuels intense love will wear out; sometimes over days, sometimes over years.
But remember, I am a romantic. So in this one case, I will dispense with science and just follow my heart. I will buy flowers for my wife and take her out to a nice dinner. Sometimes, it is better not to know all that is going on in our brains at any given time.
You too can be a 40-year-old virgin
Someone told me that women are having their vaginas rejuvenated. That's right, rejuvenated and reconstructed and revirginized even. I thought they were kidding. But my producer and I looked into it, and sure enough, it's an emerging surgical trend.
Vaginal rejuvenation costs thousands of dollars and is done with a laser. It includes a variety of procedures, such as women getting their labia made smaller because it is uncomfortable for them to engage in physical activity or have intercourse, women getting their vaginal canal tightened as it was pre-baby delivery, and other women going one step further by getting their hymen (the gateway to the vaginal canal) tightened. This last procedure can, in a sense, make a woman a virgin again.
In many instances, the women who get this surgery need it for medical reasons. But not all. Some women do this as a gift to their husband or significant other.
I interviewed one couple for this story who has been married 18 years and has two children. The wife recently had her hymen replaced as an anniversary gift for her husband. We also talked with the doctor who did the surgery and even got to be in the operating room during another woman's surgery.
You can see the video (the PG version) tonight, February 14th, Valentine's Day. These women say it's the perfect gift. But beware, it isn't cheap.
Monday, February 13, 2006
Porn-to-go starting to take off
Call it pocket porn, mini-porn, even porn-to-go. I am sitting in an edit suite completely dazzled by the cultural trend that is racing across the screens in front of me.
When the video iPod debuted back in October, there was great acclaim over the idea that we could download music videos, prime time television shows, and even movies, and carry them with us and watch them when and where we liked. Four months later, we're downloading alright. But on iPods, video cell phones and PDAs, some of the hottest content by far is pornography.
People in the porn industry, and even some major communications companies, say they've never seen anything like it. Since the dawn of the Internet, people could bypass adult video stores or hotel movie rentals in search of pornography. But now, they don't even need to have the stuff stored on their computers. So people are loading up the little hard drives on their hips with, well...hips...and a whole lot more.
It's intriguing, titillating, even a bit amusing. But I'm left wondering how I'm going to feel the first time I'm with my kids and we run up on someone watching a pod full of porn.
Katrina mobile homes immobile in Arkansas
I've lived in New Orleans 13 years now, a Yankee who got sucked in by the smell of gardenias in February and couldn't pull away.
My house is in the part of New Orleans we've started to call the "sliver by the river," the narrow strip along the Mississippi that didn't flood. So I'm typing this from the study of my 100-year-old home, with its hardwood floors and high ceilings, feeling lucky and guilty and numb.
The failure of the levees wiped-out 217,000 homes in New Orleans. Tens of thousands of people are desperate for any kind of temporary housing that will allow them to stay here while they rip the moldy sheetrock out of their homes and try to start over. But there's little housing available.
Apartment rents have doubled, FEMA-paid hotel rooms are being phased-out, and FEMA trailers are in short supply. Then this past week, I saw -- like an oasis in the desert -- 11,000 FEMA mobile homes, real homes, 3-bedroom, 2-bath beauties (comparatively speaking) -- sitting in an Arkansas cow pasture.
FEMA says these mobile homes aren't allowed in a flood plain, which pretty much rules out most of southeast Louisiana. Why did FEMA order them in the first place if they can't be used in areas where people need them? That's what I asked, but nobody seems to know. So the mobile homes sit there, immobile, 450 miles away from the Gulf Coast.
Friday, February 10, 2006
Viewer call leads to missing mom's body
We met Denise Herbert, a hurricane evacuee, last month in Atlanta. She told us that being displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina was the least of her problems, because her mother, Ethel Herbert, was still missing.
I was interviewing Denise at a program for hurricane victims, an event attended by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. In the middle of my interview, Denise both shocked and touched us by screaming uncontrollably that her elderly mother had been missing since two days after the hurricane and nobody in government had helped her.
The governor met with Denise and pledged help, but it was one of our viewers, David Lipin from California, who recognized a picture of Ethel Herbert from our story and called us. Lipin was part of a medical team that treated Ethel at the Superdome. He said she was in grave condition when she was put on an emergency helicopter. We then contacted officials at the morgue, and sadly, last week, they proclaimed that one of their unidentified bodies was that of Ethel Herbert.
So today, we are in New Orleans with Denise and other family members as they prepare for the funeral service tomorrow of the matriarch of their family. Denise is grief-stricken and heartbroken as she comes back to New Orleans for only the second time since Katrina. But she thanks God that her mother is no longer suffering and that she finally has a body to bury.
I don't mean to get preachy, but...
I'm heading to New Orleans today. We will broadcast from there Friday night.
As you know, I am personally very committed to making sure that what has happened and continues to happen in Louisiana and Mississippi does not get forgotten. In this day and age, with so much information and such short attention spans, it's easy to just move on to other subjects, other stories. Anyway, I'm not going to get all preachy about it, but I think we owe it to those who perished in the Gulf and those who survived to keep the focus on recovery, rebuilding and remembrance. Unless we study the mistakes, unless we hold public officials accountable for their words and actions, we will repeat the same mistakes.
Few politicians have acknowledged specific mistakes. Many have blamed others or issued vague, general mea culpas, but that's always easier, isn't it? OK, so I'm getting preachy. I'll stop. See you in New Orleans.
Thursday, February 09, 2006
Target sets sights on hard-to-crack cases
I got an unusual assignment this week -- Target's crime lab. Yes, I'm talking about that Target, the national "upscale discounter," as they style themselves in the information package the company hands out to reporters.
Turns out Target has one of the most advanced crime labs in the country at its headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was initially set up to deal with things like theft, fraud, and personal injury cases in their stores. Now, Target also helps law enforcement agencies nationwide solve crimes, even murders. Target has worked with the Secret Service, the ATF, and the FBI, to name a few.
Target does the work for free, seeing it as a kind of community service. It doesn't advertise its crime lab services, but word started spreading and law enforcement agencies started asking for help. Some government agency labs aren't as well-equipped as Target's. In other cases, Target can get results faster because of logjams in agency labs.
Target's lab is run by an ex-FBI agent and boasts a staff of forensic experts. They spend a lot of time analyzing video from surveillance cameras in their own stores.
The day we visited we looked at how they helped crack a murder case using video from a convenience store security camera in Minneapolis. The Target team cleaned up the image of the shooting suspect, but that wasn't enough to identify him. Then they figured out what kind of car he was driving, even though you could barely see the vehicle through the store's window on the surveillance tape. It was the stuff of CSI.
Police put these pieces together to help identify the murderer. He's now serving a life sentence in prison.
Sensory overload leads to bad buzz
You know those commercials where everything moves really fast and details are blurred, like life is on overdrive? That's how the world looks to Katrin Andberg most days.
Katrin, you see, has "Asperger's Syndrome," a neurological disorder not unlike autism. People with Asperger's are very uncomfortable in social situations and can't look others in the eye. Not once during our interview, for example, did Katrin and I make eye contact. It was a little disconcerting at first, but I got used to it.
Katrin, 22 years old, lives every day on sensory overload. She even hears the buzzing in fluorescent lights and sees them flicker every 30 seconds. (I didn't know they flickered.)
Despite her condition, Katrin is quite functional, and smart too, as I discovered when I interviewed her at her home in Foxboro, Massachusetts, for a piece that airs tonight.
Katrin graduated 6th in her high school class, runs her own business, and gets around town as long as James, her dog, is with her every step of the way. She says James calms her.
People wonder why Katrin has a service dog, because she doesn't look like she needs the help. But they can't see what's going on in her brain.
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Bin Laden cheered by cartoon demonstrations?
You could call it Osama Bin Laden's battle plan. I am looking at a world map and all of the places where violence has broken out in response to those cartoons about Islam, and I am wondering if Bin Laden and his followers are celebrating right now.
For years, they openly pined for the day when they would achieve their much desired Clash of Civilizations, a war between the Muslim world and the West. Look at a map of these protests, and you can't help but wonder if they are getting closer. From Africa, through the Middle East, all the way to Indonesia, the protests are erupting in many of the major Muslim countries.
Are most Muslims involved? Of course not. Moderate Muslims are denouncing the violence and saying those who are burning and breaking and killing represent a tiny fraction of the Muslim community. Most Muslims, they say, are offended by the cartoons, but just as troubled by the violence.
Still, Bin Laden and his followers have been appealing to poor and politically and educationally disenfranchised Muslims for years to stand up for their faith in a radical way. Looking at a world map right now, I wonder how many people out there are listening to them and using this dispute as an excuse to further radical Islam's war on the West.
Senator now just an upset homeowner
It's a battle of titans. Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott is suing State Farm insurance to get them to pay for his hurricane-damaged home.
Hurricane Katrina leveled Lott's 154-year-old waterfront home in Pascagoula, Mississippi, last August. The insurance giant says the storm surge destroyed the home. Lott had federal flood insurance, but not enough to rebuild.
The house was worth $750,000. Lott got on the Senate floor in December, pounded his fist and said homeowners along the Gulf Coast are fed up, warning that insurance companies better do the right thing or there will be "hell to pay..."
One of Lott's more colorful neighbors, Pete Floyd, is still finding some of Lott's personal effects in debris strewn throughout the neighborhood, including a Christmas photo of Lott and a silver plate Lott's daughter received as a wedding present. Floyd paid about $300 a year for flood insurance and received $130,000 dollars from his insurance company.
We chased after both parties for interviews, but Lott's office says he isn't talking about this "personal" issue. State Farm isn't talking either, saying it is a matter of "litigation." In court filings, State Farm says precedent is on their side.
It's a familiar scene being played out in courtrooms across the Gulf Coast.Correction: An earlier version of this post reported that Senator Lott did not have flood insurance on his Gulf Coast home. In fact, Senator Lott did have federal flood insurance. CNN regrets the error.
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
More riots and more debate
So, I'm on the air right now, blogging in commercial breaks. I'm liking this whole blogging thing.
Anyway, we just had blogger Andrew Sullivan on with Nihad Awad, the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. It was a really interesting discussion, and I should have let it go longer.
There were more protests in a number of Islamic countries today, attacks on NATO troops in Afghanistan. Nihad Awad believed the cartoons were intended as an attack on Muslims around the world, though he says he condems the violent reaction to them. On his blog, Andrew wrote, "Religions that enforce rules against blasphemy are defensive, cramped faiths, closed to the possibility of error, which is to say closed to the possibility of a great truth."
I don't think we settled anything in the discussion, but this is not an issue that can be settled in seven minutes, or an hour, or perhaps even a lifetime. It's important to have it, though, and we will continue to do so.
By the way, thanks again for all your comments on the blog. Even if I don't use them in the show, I check the blog throughout the day, and your comments are really smart and well thought out. (Even the ones that aren't well thought out are welcome too, especially the funny ones!)
Riots over cartoons reflect gulf of understanding
Last night, we brought Andrew Sullivan, an incredibly sharp writer and blogger, on the program.
We had him on to discuss the ongoing demonstrations in the Muslim world over the publishing of several irreverent cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. As we were talking, I was looking at pictures of the demonstrations, wondering how such a great gulf in understanding can exist between different groups of people.
Andrew pointed to recent depictions of Jesus Christ in popular media in the United States -- citing the current cover of "Rolling Stone" with Kanye West dressed up as Jesus Christ. We live in the West, he said, we can depict anybody without people rioting.
We're going to explore this issue tonight on the show. We'll also take a look at the demonstrations through the eyes of CNN correspondents who are on the ground in these countries.
The demonstrations have all of us wondering how moderate Muslims are feeling these days. Can Islam co-exist with freedom of speech and freedom of the press? What is off-limits? What is allowed? We're interested in hearing your thoughts.
Baby's light disorder left doctors in the dark
A baby is born and appears completely fine. Slowly though, complications develop. Her little heart is beating too fast, her breathing is not quite right. As they put her under the heat lights to warm her, she swells and turns black and blue.
The doctors try to save her, but everything they do makes her worse. They soon discover that light itself is her demon. She is allergic to the sun, fluorescent light, even a 100-watt incandescent light bulb.
This is not an episode of "House" or "ER." It is real. In this case, doctors figured out what was wrong, and the baby survived. But she hardly ever gets to be outside, and when she does, she is completely covered head-to-toe. She never gets to see the sun or feel its warmth on her body. It is not the childhood any parent would envision.
It seems everyone in our newsroom has been coming up to me in recent days and telling me stories about their own medical mysteries or those of friends.
I was one of those medical students who firmly believed I had every illness my professors talked about in class. I was the guy in the back of the lecture hall slowly bringing my hand to my head and worrying what malady would strike next.
I slowly got over my hypochondria, but it resurfaced over the past month while working a series of stories about rare medical disorders, including this one about light disorder, which airs tonight. It's enough to make me want to rush home to my seven-month-old daughter to make sure everything is fine.
Donate your face? Thoughtful replies
Thanks for all your responses to our question about whether or not you would donate your face. I read the many comments published in response. There were some really thoughtful ones, and a few funny ones as well. A lot of people asked questions about my book, but I'll blog about that some other time. In case you didn't see the show last night, we've started reading some of your blog comments on the air, so keep them coming.
Monday, February 06, 2006
Girls' school mourned Bloom, prays for Woodruff
At the Convent of Sacred Heart, a school of 700 girls and women in Greenwich, Connecticut, the war in Iraq has hit home again. I just visited with some of the students and the school's headmistress, and they tell me they are doing a lot of praying right now.
David Bloom, an NBC correspondent who died from a blood clot in 2003 while covering the Iraq war, was a great supporter and friend of the school. His daughters go there and he attended as many school functions as his schedule allowed. When he died, his good friend, Bob Woodruff, then a foreign correspondent for ABC News, took his place.
Woodruff filled in during father-daughter dance nights, even once at grandparents night. And he delivered the commencement speech that David Bloom was scheduled to give until he died in Iraq. I just looked at the speech on video, which you can see tonight on 360°. It makes for chilling viewing given the serious injuries Woodruff received recently in Iraq.
"He was tired and afraid and uncertain about what would happen next," Woodruff said at the commencement. "Dave understood what we all knew. Surviving this war would be largely about luck."
Arab-Americans fear NSA wiretapping
When I got the assignment to cover Arab-American reaction to the Bush administration wiretapping revelations, I knew who to call.
Osama Siblani is the publisher of the Arab American News, a newspaper based in Dearborn, Michigan, with an online edition that's read around the world. For more than a decade, whenever I've contacted him, he's always given me an accurate picture of what's going on in metro Detroit's Arab community, one of the largest outside the Middle East.
Right off the bat, Siblani told me many Arab-Americans fear their government is listening to their phone conversations. In fact, he says he's quite sure his newspaper's phones are bugged. I asked him if he had any evidence. He said no. But since he regularly makes calls to contacts in Arab countries overseas, he reasoned that his newspaper would be a likely target for eavesdropping.
A few things I should point out. The National Security Agency does not comment on where or on whom they do surveillance, but General Michael Hayden, former head of the NSA and now the nation's deputy director of intelligence, recently said neither Arab-Americans nor any other ethnic group are a target of the wiretapping program. Hayden said the program targets "only those we have a reasonable basis to believe involve Al Qaeda or one of its affiliates."
Some Arab-Americans we spoke with had no problem with wiretapping without warrants. As one man born in Iraq told me, you have "to do what you have to do to protect the country."
Still, Osama Siblani assured me, a large share of the Arab-American community feels they are being monitored. And, he says, it is sparking anger. Many Arab-Americans now believe their loyalty to the United States is being questioned.
For our story, we talked to a number of folks from Detroit's diverse Arab community to see if that was valid. And sure enough, it wasn't tough to find Arabs and Arab-Americans who did not have any evidence, but did have a lot of suspicions that they were being wiretapped. And they weren't happy about it.
Would you donate your face?
Hope you all had a good weekend. I spent most of mine in a self-imposed news blackout. I'm finishing up a book I've been writing, and am already past my deadline.
We had our morning editorial call early today, and there was a lot of discussion about the French face transplant recipient. I get pretty squeamish watching surgeries, but I find this procedure fascinating. The fact that once you have the transplant you won't look quite like yourself, but you also won't look like the person whose skin you're getting, raises some provocative issues.
For example, if this surgery becomes more common, all of us are going to be confronted with the question: Would you be willing to donate your face when you die? It's an interesting question. Several people in our office who are organ donors weren't sure they'd be willing to go that far. I'm not sure how I feel. Logically, it's no different than donating an organ, right? Nevertheless, I find it tough to think about.
I'd be interested to read some of your thoughts.
Friday, February 03, 2006
Child prostitution story leads to arrest
There have been a lot of really interesting and thoughtful responses on the blog tonight about the border issue. I just heard some great news. One of the stories we aired earlier this week highlighting the problems of child prostitution in Mexico actually had an impact. U.S. government officials say that after our piece ran Mexican officials received a tip from a viewer who had seen the story. That tip led to the arrest of at least one American man who was caught making pornography with three little girls in Tijuana, the U.S. officials say. That man is now in jail and those three little girls are safe tonight, and for that, we are truly grateful.
"Coyotes" rule amid Tijuana chaos
Editor's note: CNN Correspondent Rick Sanchez traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, recently in search of "coyotes," otherwise known as smugglers.
I am one of the lucky ones. I am a Hispanic immigrant who doesn't have to look over his shoulder. I am, in a word, LEGAL! I get to stay.
Why? Because of a law passed in the 1960s called the Cuban Adjustment Act, which essentially says that because Fidel Castro is a bad guy, our enemy, and a communist, then people fleeing his country, like me, get to become automatic Americans.
It's a rare law, one of the few where somebody in Washington actually made a decision as to who should stay and why. Say what you want about whether the law may be outdated, but at least at the time it was passed it offered order. And order is something many people think is lacking in our present immigration policy.
There seems to be little willpower in Washington, D.C., to come up with a more consistent immigration policy, so as a result there are too few answers. Who should be allowed in? Who knows? Is there a way to earn a work visa that's worth waiting for? No, not really. Is there a way to quantify our immigration need or a reasonable number we can support? No help there either.
We saw a lot of these vexing issues firsthand on a recent trip to the border town of Tijuana, Mexico, for a piece airing tonight on the show. It is a place where "coyotes," or smugglers, rule. And it is a place where Mexicans cross the border illegally because they can.
So what are we left with? Confusion, which invites chaos, which may be the best way to describe what we saw in Tijuana.
Tell me what you think.
Is the U.S.-Mexican border broken?
With the recent news about heroin implanted in the bellies of six puppies, allegedly by a drug cartel trying to smuggle drugs into the United States, we thought we'd take a closer look tonight at problems on the U.S.-Mexican border.
Last Sunday, I went to San Diego to tour a recently discovered tunnel likely built by a drug cartel. Tonight, we are going to air a special report -- Battle on the Border -- that looks at a host of border issues, including smuggling, immigration and drugs.
We'll take another look at the tunnel and the incredibly disturbing trafficking in children for prostitution. I crossed into Tijuana last Sunday and it didn't take very long to find children working as prostitutes.
There is an American law called the PROTECT Act, which allows American citizens to be prosecuted for traveling abroad with the intent to have sex with a minor. But in Mexico, it doesn't seem like police take child sexual abuse all that seriously.
In Tijuana, we were in an SUV shooting video in the Zona Rosa, the red light district, and the police pulled us over because they saw our camera. We had to say we were tourists just out videotaping, and the police demanded a bribe. It's difficult for U.S. authorities to investigate sex trafficking of children when Mexican police seem to turn a blind eye to what is happening right in front of their eyes.
I want to do a lot more on this problem in the months ahead, but tonight we begin with our Battle on the Border special report. I don't want to use this blog just to promote programming, but I hope you watch tonight, because I think it's an important story.
What do you think needs to be done along our southern border?
Thursday, February 02, 2006
Ethics committee goes dark
QUESTION: For all the indictments, investigations and troubling questions swirling around Congress, why have we heard so little, or more bluntly, nothing, from the House ethics committee?
ANSWER: In the mid-1990s, Democrats and Republicans became so concerned that ethics complaints were being used for unfair political attacks on each other, both parties agreed to a truce. Although few will speak publicly about it, the truce is widely acknowledged on both sides of the aisle.
The ethics committee (or as it is properly known, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct) is made up of five Republicans and five Democrats, so neither party can fairly say the other is keeping the committee silent. People seem to be noticing: A poll in December found that almost half of the U.S. population thinks most members of Congress are corrupt.
Now we're hearing all this talk in Washington, D.C., about lobbying reform. I have no particular affection for lobbyists, but it seems to me that this is like saying, "We have a problem with policemen taking bribes, but we're not going to hold the officers accountable. We'll just come up with new laws for criminals."
Some people will always offer improper favors to people in high places. What we need are members of Congress who won't accept those favors.
So tell me what you think: Should Congress officially turn off the lights and abolish the ethics committee? Will anyone notice if they do?
Gay former NFL player tackles demons
Editor's note: CNN Correspondent Heidi Collins' interview with Roy Simmons airs tonight on "Anderson Cooper 360°" 10 p.m.-midnight ET.
When Roy Simmons walked in to the studio to sit down for our interview, the first thing I noticed was how big he was. Take one look at this former NFL offensive lineman and it becomes obvious pretty quickly that he played professional ball.
Then Simmons shook my hand. It was the gentlest handshake and kindest voice I'd heard in a while. Not quite what you'd expect from a guy who had knocked helmets for the New York Giants and went to the Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins in 1984.
The fact that Simmons says he is gay and was raped by a neighbor when he was 11 years old and now is H.I.V. positive...These also aren't things you'd expect.
Simmons told me about the secret of his homosexuality and how it had tortured him for his entire professional football career. He said that in the NFL you can be a wife-beater or a drug-dealer, but being gay...forget about it.
He said hiding his sexual orientation led to a powerful addiction to drugs and alcohol. He told me he was spending about one thousand dollars every day to support his habit. He said it was so bad he even snorted cocaine on the day he played in the Super Bowl.
Today, Simmons is trying to maintain a sober life. He sat down with me recently to talk about his new book, "Out of Bounds," for a report airing tonight. He says he'd like to help others stop keeping secrets.
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
Oprah on my mind
Ok, so I know I should blog earlier in the day, but I just got back from Washington, D.C., and due to my lack of organization, my BlackBerry wasn't charged, so I've been away from a computer all day. Needless to say, I arrived back in New York suffering from technology withdrawal. My hands were shaking, but now that they are dancing on the keyboard, the tremors have stopped. There are a lot of emails from viewers today about my appearance on Oprah yesterday. It was really cool to be on her program, and I actually spent part of today working on another story for her in Washington. Not sure when that will make it on air though.
Is it just me, or does the State of the Union feel like it was months ago already?
Rock'n'roll in Iran
Editor's note: Christiane Amanpour is CNN's chief international correspondent. Her reports on Iran aired Wednesday on "Anderson Cooper 360°" 10 p.m.-midnight ET.
It's always a rush to revisit Iran. I grew up there, left during the Islamic revolution 25 years ago, and now regularly go back on assignment for CNN. I went back recently for a series of reports on the country.
I never quite know what to expect these days. Who would have thought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fundamentalist Islamic hardliner, could have been elected president by a country that's overwhelmingly young and overwhelmingly wants reform, modernization, travel and dialogue with the West?
For me, the most interesting thing about this country is the juxtaposition of the regime's hardline, even militant, supporters with the young kids, teenagers and adults who could belong anywhere, even the United States.
One day, I head underground to listen to...a ROCK BAND!!!! The next day, I head to the mosque to hear the young hardliners wax passionate about the Islamic revolution that happened in 1979, as if it were yesterday, praising the new conservative government for taking them back to those values.
Many of these kids just want to play their music. They are not political, yet they have to play their music in secret.
There are definitely two Irans. The dilemma for the West is figuring out which one to deal with: Who to punish? Who to reward? And how? There are no easy answers on Iran, only constant questions. And never has that dilemma been so critical to solve as today, now that Iran's new president has hauled the world into yet another nuclear crisis.
Each time I leave Iran, I don't know what I'll find when I come back. No one does.
Oscars for politics
I was riding the Metro train to work in Washington, D.C., this morning, bleary-eyed and headachy from staying up half the night to cover the State of the Union, when a thought hit me like a football to Marcia Brady's nose: If politics has really devolved into only so much political theater, why don't we treat it that way?
Now, I know that there are plenty of Democrats and Republicans who really want to help with the serious work of the nation: Spurring the economy, supporting families, protecting our security. But these Super Bowl political events, such as the State of the Union address, are really about policy second, putting on a show first.
So I thought, let's go through all the moments of the speech and give out some awards, just like we do for movies.Best Actor:
Senator Bill Frist acting like he wasn't using every moment in front of the camera to campaign for his own presidency.Worst Actress:
Hillary Clinton trying to force a smile after President Bush invoked the name of her husband in a bid for Democratic applause.Best Drama:
Samuel Alito's agonizing struggle over whether or not to clap.Best Direction:
Mindless lockstep of Reds and Blues cheering or grousing on cue.Best Walk-On:
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco...a not so subtle reminder that big problems remain in the Deep South.Worst Walk-Off:
Anti-war protestor Cindy Sheehan. She got herself into the chamber, but then got thrown out for revealing her antiwar t-shirt before the president even arrived. Talk about missing your cue.Best Supporting Actress:
Laura Bush. Who can argue?Best Comedy:
Dave Chappelle. No, he wasn't there, but it sure would have been funny.Best Picture:
OK, no kidding here. The family of Marine Staff Sergeant Dan Clay, who was killed in Iraq, displayed dignity, bravery and respect in a room full of political posturing. By far, their appearance was the most compelling moment of the night.
Anyway, we're cutting tape on this piece now and tonight we'll roll it out: Step aside Oscar, the COOPERS are coming!
What Oscar-style political awards do you think should be handed out and who should win them?